A Chinese doctor who was detained by the communist government for sounding the alarm about the deadly coronavirus outbreak has died after he was infected while treating patients, claims the hospital treating him.

The Wuhan Central Hospital said on its social media account that Dr. Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, was "unfortunately infected during the fight against the pneumonia epidemic of the new coronavirus infection."

"We deeply regret and mourn this," it added.

Earlier, conflicting Chinese media reports said the 34-year-old Li had died and the news was reported around the world, before the hospital removed its initial post and instead said that Li was in critical condition.

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The World Health Organization tweeted: "We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Li Wenliang. We all need to celebrate work that he did" on the virus.

Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, 34, confirmed on Saturday that he had caught the deadly disease. Photo / Weibo
Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, 34, confirmed on Saturday that he had caught the deadly disease. Photo / Weibo

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The hospital's social media post received nearly 500,000 comments in the first half-hour afterward, with people hoping he would pull through. One wrote: "We are not going to bed, we are here waiting for a miracle."

Li, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, had shared his concerns the same day that Chinese authorities confirmed they were investigating 27 cases of viral pneumonia. Officials at the epicenter in Wuhan - the capital of Hubei province, where millions are now trapped in an unprecedented lockdown - sent an "urgent notice" to all hospitals about the existence of "pneumonia of unclear cause."

The notice ordered all departments to immediately compile information about known cases and report them up their chain of command. But it did not mention SARS or a coronavirus.

Li had posted a snippet of an RNA analysis finding "SARS coronavirus" and extensive bacteria colonies in a patient's airways, according to a chat transcript that he and other chat members later shared online.

On January 1, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau issued summons to Li and the others accused of fanning rumors. The detentions were reported on "Xinwen Lianbo," a newscast watched by tens of millions.

The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China. Photo / AP
The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China. Photo / AP

The police followed up in the state-run Xinhua News Agency with a chilling warning.

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"The police call on all netizens to not fabricate rumors, not spread rumors, not believe rumors," the Wuhan authorities said, adding that they encouraged web users to "jointly build a harmonious, clear and bright cyberspace."

As authorities cracked down, the outbreak was quickly worsening amid an information vacuum. Wang Guangbao, a surgeon and popular science writer in eastern China, later said speculation about a SARS-like virus was rampant around Jan. 1 within medical circles, but the detentions dissuaded many, including himself, from speaking openly about it.

"The eight posters getting seized made all of us doctors feel we were at risk," he said.

Li was released by Wuhan police on Jan. 3 after signing a document acknowledging he committed "illegal acts." The doctor later explained to CNN that his family would "worry sick" about him "if I lose my freedom for a few days." CNN reported that he was able to leave the police station within about an hour.

He hurried back to work to see sick patients - and worked "normally" for a while, he wrote on Weibo, tending to patients with the new coronavirus.

Then, on January 10, he got a cough.

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The next day, Li wrote, he had a fever, and by January 12 he was in the hospital. Tests for the virus he'd been scrutinizing came back negative, but he was having a hard time breathing and moving.

China had yet to declare an emergency. That would come on Jan. 20, as more than 400 million Chinese people prepared to travel home to mark the Lunar New Year. A renowned pulmonologist appeared on state media to announce that the new virus was transmissible between people, and Chinese President Xi Jinping called for quick information-sharing and "resolute efforts" to contain the virus.

In this Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, photo, medical workers in a protective suit help patients who diagnosed with the coronaviruses as they arrive at a temporary hospital in Wuhan. Photo / AP
In this Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, photo, medical workers in a protective suit help patients who diagnosed with the coronaviruses as they arrive at a temporary hospital in Wuhan. Photo / AP

Within days, all of Wuhan and several nearby cities - an area the size of Washington state with more than 50 million people - were locked down. Authorities raced to accommodate ballooning numbers of patients, working to erect entire new hospitals.

Li confirmed on his Weibo account on Saturday that he had been officially diagnosed with the virus.

- Additional reporting, Washington Post, AP